Review 1516: 4321

As we go through life, we make choices and have choices made for us that open up possibilities to us while closing down others. What if we could see the results of taking some of the paths not chosen or those resulting from different circumstances? In 4321, Paul Auster explores this theme.

Archie is the grandson of a Russian immigrant whose name was recorded as Ferguson by an immigration official. 4321 follows Archie as a boy and a young man leading four different lives.

Some things about Archie remain constant while others change. He has the same parents, but in one story they’re happily married, in one a parent is widowed, and in one they are divorced. His father’s business is bought out or burgled or burned down. As a result of the fate of the business, his family is just hanging on to the middle class or wealthy, they live in New Jersey or New York. He always loves Amy Schneiderman, but in one story they are lovers, in another cousins by marriage, in another stepbrother and sister. He goes to college at Columbia or Princeton or not at all. He is a writer—a journalist, a poet, a literary fiction author. And so on.

It is very unusual for me to take more than two weeks to read a work of fiction, but this was the case with 4321. I was reading it for my Booker project, so did not acquaint myself with it before I started. That meant that I had a tough time getting started until I caught on to what was going on with Chapter 1.4. (The chapters are numbered with subsections to help you keep track of the four Fergusons.)

Then, I found myself alternating between being interested and slogging through the book because of my own determination to finish, possibly because I am not that interested in the inner lives (or outer ones) of adolescent boys, and Archie’s story ends at the age of 22. And in fact, the story is uneven. There is way too much information about certain subjects, the political situation at 1969 Columbia University being one, baseball another, Archie’s juvenile fiction, which we get to read (shudder), a third.

I also haven’t seen any references in reviews (not that I read them all) to Auster’s writing style, which is verbose, with long chapters (averaging more than 100 pages) broken down into long paragraphs (often a page or more) and very long, not to say run-on, sentences.

Was this book worth reading? Yes. I was more engaged at the end than in the middle. And spoiler: This book has an interesting ending, as in the last few pages you find out you’ve been reading a work of pure metafiction.

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Review 1370: Unsheltered

Unusual for Barbara Kingsolver, Unsheltered is a dual time-frame novel, changing centuries every other chapter. The setting is the same, though, the odd town of Vineland, New Jersey.

In the present time, Willa’s family has discovered that the house she inherited in Vineland is no asset. Both she and her husband, Iano, have recently lost their jobs through no fault of their own. Willa’s magazine failed, and so did the college in West Virginia where Iano was tenured. When he finally got hired in an inferior level for a one-year position, the inherited house nearby had seemed like a godsend. But now she has found that it is falling down, with part of the old house not even on a foundation, and too expensive to fix.

To make matters worse, they are the only people in the family who offered to take in Iano’s ornery dying father. Their daughter, Tig, has also unexpectedly returned from a year in Cuba. Finally, their son Zeke’s partner has committed suicide, leaving him in an apartment he can’t afford with a baby son. Willa and Iano offer him a place to stay, but what he wants is to leave his son with them.

In mid-19th century Vineland, Thatcher Greenwood has moved his new bride, Rose, back into the house she grew up in. They are also living with her mother, Aurelia, and young sister, Polly. Thatcher is delighted with his wife but is soon to find that they don’t share the same values. His position as a science teacher pays very little, but Rose and her mother continue to demand elegancies that belong to their former life, before Rose’s father went broke.

Next door, Thatcher meets Mary Treat. Rose knows her as the poor woman who was deserted by her husband, but Thatcher learns that she is a scientist, whose correspondents include Charles Darwin.

Vineland was founded as a sort of utopia by Captain Landis, but Thatcher begins to see the cracks in that utopia. One of them is his employer, who will not allow him to teach anything more than rote memorization and hates most recent scientific theories, particularly Darwin’s.

Both of these main characters are concerned with keeping shelter over their families’ heads, but while Kingsolver links the stories through Willa’s growing interest in Mary Treat, she is also able to draw many parallels between the two times. The present uncertainty in the poor economy of the Eastern Seaboard she compares to the uncertainty in the lives of Vineland’s population, of workers promised much by a man who can repossess their property if they fail. An unmistakable political figure in the present day, nicknamed by Willa The Bullhorn, bears a metaphorical resemblance to Landis, who is essentially a conman. The main characters’ housing insecurity stands for the insecurity of the entire population as a result of climate change and the death of the American dream. Kingsolver has lots to talk about.

I’m not so sure how much I liked the dual narrative. I was far more interested in the present-time story than I was in the older one. Kingsolver seemed to want to write about Mary Treat, but Treat features more as an important secondary character. And I have to say that some of Willa’s discussions with her daughter and her ruminations about those discussions border on the didactic (which we know has been a fault of Kingsolver in some other books).

Still, it is great to have another book out by Kingsolver. She can be hit or miss, but I have very fond memories of some of her books.

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Day 1086: Lady Cop Makes Trouble

Cover for Lady Cop Makes TroubleLady Cop Makes Trouble is the second book in Amy Stewart’s Kopp sisters series, set in pre-World War I New Jersey. Although entertaining, it did not really live up to the energy of the first novel.

Constance Kopp is in limbo in her career with the sheriff’s department in Paterson. Sheriff Heath has wanted to hire her as a deputy ever since the state of New Jersey made it legal to hire women as police. But the sheriff’s office is different, lawyers advise, and until he can hire her as a deputy, he has her working as a matron in the jail.

When a German-speaking inmate claims he needs medical attention, he refuses to describe his symptoms in English. Constance speaks German, so Sheriff Heath has her accompany the deputy and the prisoner to the hospital. When the hospital experiences a blackout, Constance sends the deputy away, claiming she can guard the prisoner, Baron Matthesius, herself. But the Baron escapes.

A law makes the sheriff responsible for escapes, so Sheriff Heath could be imprisoned for Constance’s mistake. Constance is determined to recapture the prisoner.

I didn’t find the plot of this novel as interesting as the last, nor were the characters as vibrant. Like the first novel, this one is based on newspaper clippings from the time. Constance Kopp really existed and had some interesting adventures.

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Day 954: Americanah

Cover for AmericanahIfemelu has decided to return to Nigeria after living in the United States for 13 years. She has just finished a fellowship at Princeton and broken up with her American boyfriend, Blaine. In preparation for leaving, she also winds down her popular blog about race in America. While she is getting her hair braided, she thinks about her journey to this point.

Ifemelu grows up in a Nigeria where, for the young, the only hope seems to be to leave the country. Her father has been out of work for years because he was too proud to call his boss “Mam.” A few fat cats, like the general supporting Ifemelu’s Aunty Uju, are unbelievably rich, but there is no opportunity ahead of them for the young middle class. Most of them dream about leaving the country.

In high school Ifemelu falls in love with Obinze, who dreams of going to the States. The two enroll in a college in Nigeria where Obinze’s mother is a professor. But the dorm’s lavatories aren’t working and the professors haven’t been paid in months. Eventually, they go on strike, and Ifemelu must return home to Lagos. When she hears Ifemelu is at loose ends, Aunty Uju, who is now living in New Jersey, suggests that Ifemelu move there to go to school and help her care for her son.

In New Jersey Ifemelu begins struggling to find work, for her scholarship only pays 75% of her expenses. It is in this time period that she does something that separates her from Obinze. She stops taking his calls or responding to him.

Obinze has his own problems. His lack of opportunity in Nigeria eventually brings him to England as an illegal immigrant. There he struggles along with menial jobs, giving kick-backs to work under other men’s names. He is about to marry a woman for citizenship when he is deported.

Much of the novel is about the difficult immigrant experiences of the two main characters (although we spend much more time with Ifemelu) and Ifemelu’s experiences of race problems in the United States. Ifemelu’s observations on her blog provide an interesting, sort of third-party, perspective. With all of the recent police shootings of unarmed black men that have happened lately, this is a  topic that is on everyone’s minds.

I went back and forth on how much I liked this novel. In Ifemelu, Adiche creates a good, strong voice and a believable, likable character. I was not so enamored of the love affair at the center of the novel. The coming of age section at the beginning of the book I found trite and a little tedious, but that is only about 60 pages long. However, the moral decisions at the end are more troubling, or in fact, that there is absolutely no thought about them, that’s what troubles me. I found very interesting, though, Ifemelu’s reaction to the changed Nigeria when she comes home.

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Day 891: Girl Waits with Gun

Cover to Girl Waits with GunConstance, Norma, and Fleurette Kopp are driving their carriage into Paterson, New Jersey, one day when they are broadsided by an automobile driven by a wealthy man accompanied by a bunch of thugs. The men try to drive away but are stopped by the townspeople. The man turns out to be Henry Kaufman of Kaufman Silk Dying Company.

When Constance tries to collect $50 from him for repairs to their buggy, she and her family find themselves the victims of harassment. They receive threatening letters, bricks are thrown through the windows of their farmhouse at night, and men invade their property. Constance’s trip to the police gets no help from the prosecutor’s office, but Sheriff Heath teaches Constance and Norma how to shoot and sends deputies out to patrol the house.

The threats don’t stop, though. Instead, the attacks escalate and the women receive kidnapping threats against Fleurette, who is only 16.

In the meantime, Constance has met Lucy, a young dyer, who says she had a child by Kaufman. She said she sent the baby away with other children during a recent strike, and he is the only one who didn’t come back. She is sure Kaufman kidnapped him.

This novel is fun, exciting, and well written, with interesting characters, placed during a period when there was a lot of labor unrest in the Northeast. Constance is an engaging heroine. Although the plot involving Lucy is made up, the rest is based on a true case of the time, taken from newspaper articles from 1914. This novel makes truly enjoyable reading.

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Day 845: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Cover for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar WaoEven after thinking about the novel for some time, I can’t decide whether I liked The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. On the one hand, there’s the energy with which it is written and its inventiveness, wedging a portion of the narrative into footnotes that convey some of the most interesting information (a technique used also in The Sunken Cathedral and by such writers as David Foster Wallace). On the other hand, there’s the unrelenting sexism and objectification of women expressed by the principal narrator as well as by other characters. Okay, that’s an important part of the character’s personality rather than an attitude of the author, but I found it disturbing.

Oscar is a misfit. He is a fat, nerdy boy from the Dominican Republic, highly intelligent and well read but unable to interact normally with people, especially girls. He is interested in Star Trek and Tolkien, but even his other geeky friends eventually get girlfriends while he remains alone and still preoccupied with his obsessions. He dreams of being a science fiction writer.

In college at Rutgers he has one reluctant friend. Because Yunior (Díaz’s persona for much of his fiction) is in love with Oscar’s sister Lola, he agrees to be Oscar’s roommate. He tries to get Oscar to exercise and invites him out with friends. But his efforts aren’t sincere, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that his intentions are mixed, so he eventually gives up on trying to make Oscar more normal.

Of course, Yunior’s perceptions are all colored by his own preoccupation, sex. Although he loves Lola, they break up several times because of his unfaithfulness. Yunior sees Oscar as a young man wanting to get laid. Well, of course he does, but what he really wants is love.

Oscar has grown up with the romance of his sci-fi and fantasy epics. Yes, they are also full of action, but they are in a sense the continuation of the chivalric romances that obsessed another famous character, Don Quixote, and that’s the book this novel reminds me of. Of course, we know from the title that Oscar will die, and we can guess he will die for love. Also like Don Quixote, although the story is ultimately tragic, its tone is comic.

What I found most interesting in this novel was the story of Oscar’s family, for this is an inter-generational saga about the fortunes of his family in the Dominican Republic. In a combination of narrative and footnotes, the novel tells the recent history of the Dominican Republic and especially of the Trujillo regime, where Oscar’s family ran aground.

This time period was also the focus of another book I’ve reviewed, In the Time of Butterflies, which this novel references, along with a lot of other pop culture. I complained of that book that it assumed its readers already understood all about the Trujillo dictatorship. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao does a much better job of explaining Dominican history and exposing us to its culture.

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Day 406: Annals of the Former World: In Suspect Terrain

Cover for Annals of the Former WorldIn the second book of Annals of the Former World, John McPhee returns east to examine the geology of the Appalachians along I-80. Beginning with the Delaware Water Gap, he travels along the highway with geologist Anita Harris exploring the road cuts to see what can be determined about how the landscape developed. The two continue on this route through Pennsylvania and into Ohio, where they explore Kelley’s Island, travel along the Cuyahoga River for a spell, and end at the Indiana Dunes.

Having explained the basics of plate tectonics in Basin and Range, McPhee now travels with a geologist who is skeptical of the broad application the theory has found, particularly in relation to the Appalachians. Harris takes issue with the idea that the mountains were formed by the ramming of the African coast up against North America. She believes that a study of the rocks does not support this concept.

In Suspect Terrain is deeply concerned with glaciation. As well as explaining how glaciers could have formed this area of folded and complex geology, McPhee breaks off to expatiate on how the theory of the Ice Age came about, among other geological ideas. He also tells how Harris herself figured out how to use the color of conodonts, a kind of fossil, to make it easier to find the conditions for oil.

I find it fascinating to try to imagine the pictures of the earth that McPhee describes, how different they are from the continent as it is today. McPhee tells us how rivers ran to the west instead of to the east, huge tropical seas took up the middle of the continent, the glaciers shoved rock down from Canada to create places like Staten Island.

McPhee is an extremely interesting writer. To be sure, the subject matter, the ideas it evokes, and the language he uses demand full attention, but this series of books is involving.